The Lion In Winter at the Guthrie Theatre

Laila Robins and Kevyn Morrow in The Lion In Winter. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Laila Robins and Kevyn Morrow in The Lion In Winter. Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

When The Lion in Winter begins on the Guthrie‘s McGuire stage (playing through Dec 31), the great red-velvet curtain opens on a timbered, multileveled tower, topped with two tiers of flickering candles. The set, designed by Christopher Ash, deftly invokes the rough-hewn Middle Ages and places all the action at center stage. A soft veil of snow filters down outside the castle walls, but what follows is enough passion, conniving, red-hot personal attacks and fiery temper to warm any Minnesota night from now to New Year’s eve.

It is Christmas in the year 1183 and Henry II, king of England, has lost his eldest son and heir. Henry, under pressure from the Phillip II of France, releases his estranged wife, the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine from her lonely castle-prison to reach a workable agreement on who will inherit the realm. Henry and Eleanor have three remaining sons from which to choose: Richard the Lionhearted (Eleanor’s favorite), Geoffrey (no one’s favorite, but arguably the most competent) and John (Henry’s choice and the least intelligent). Things do not go well.

The Lion in Winter, James Goldman’s fifty-year-old classic, is almost a fool-proof play. The script is smart and intriguing, just give the actors tunics and wimples and let them have at it. There are enough surprises and great lines to keep an audience happy. However, for this play to really excel it requires actors capable of being both heartless schemers and sympathetic victims of others’ maneuvering. They must be able to tilt back and forth between these extremes within a single scene or even a single speech.

Laila Robins does just that. As Queen Eleanor, she parries and thrusts as she thwarts Henry’s attempts to put dim-witted John on the throne. She does what she can to gain her freedom and simultaneously regain her husband’s love, who long ago took to other women. Robins is both wheedling and charismatic as the plotting pariah. As she flips her trailing gown and toys with her jewels and tiaras, she infuses her scenes with sudden flares of humor and insight.

Kevyn Morrow is less agile in his role as the hearty and indomitable King Henry II. In the first act he gallops through his lines as if in retreat rather than command. His scenes with his young mistress Alais are weak. Thallis Santesteban as Alais is merely petulant, a single note that she continues to hammer throughout the entire play. Thankfully, Morrow’s Henry improves in the second act. His scenes with Eleanor, lifted by her fervor, are some of the best in the production.

As for the sons, Michael Hanna stands out. His Geoffrey is a fine-tuned, heartless schemer. He gains sympathy as the one son who is too smart for his own good. Unfortunately Torsten Johnson, as the warrior Richard, seems more wooden than steely. And Riley O’Toole as the sniveling and stupid John is a caricature rather than a character. In fairness to O’Toole, it’s a thankless part often played for comic relief.

Director Kevin Moriarty is responsible for at least some of the show’s weaknesses. He might have guided his actors towards more fully realized characters, especially the younger, less experienced ones. The oddly static last part of the play, staged in a dungeon, begs for heavy, prowling anxiety and dark fear. Instead the high tenor voices of the three imprisoned sons turn into an annoying whining chorus. This could be overlooked in a theatre of less stature, but at the Guthrie one expects the director or vocal coach Jill Walmsley Zager to catch this flaw.

Despite the discord, the play does reach a touching conclusion. There is warmth in the glow of the candles which Henry has filched from the chapel. And a spark develops between the old antagonists as Henry and Eleanor vow to do it all again next year.


2 comments for “The Lion In Winter at the Guthrie Theatre

  1. Victoria
    January 1, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Laila Robbins was the only actor cast appropriately. The rest were terribly inadequate.

  2. Pam
    November 30, 2016 at 9:56 am

    I agree I was so distracted from the actors vocal ranges being so similar with no subleties or variations to create any interest in the individual characters. The kings role was miscast with a need for an older more mature more conflicted more rich character to support all the love, adoration, hate and passion the family and mistress supposedly felt. A disappointment for sure….

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